No Dogs Allowed
Sled dogs are an important part of the history and exploration of Antarctica. Roald Amundsen used sled dogs to reach the South Pole in 1911. Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton both tried using sled dogs in Antarctica, but met with less success than Amundsen. Hundreds of other expeditions have used sled dogs here throughout the years. But, many people do not know that sled dogs are no longer allowed on the continent. Back in the 1980’s the Environmental Protocol (conservation of Antarctic plants and animals) called for all non-native species, except humans, to be removed from Antarctica. The dogs had to be removed from Antarctica by April of 1994. This ban was introduced due to concerns that the dogs might transfer diseases such as canine distemper to the seal population. It was also a concern that the dogs might break free and disturb the wildlife. That was certainly the end of an era.
During my time with the ANDRILL Project, I sat down with Peter Cleary, (from Scott Base), and we had a chat about his experiences with sled dogs on the ice. Today I spoke with Ross Powell, one of the principle investigators of WISSARD about his experiences with sled dogs. I’ll combine facts and stories from both men, to teach you more about sled dogs that were used here on the ice.
Peter first came to Antarctica during the 1978-79 season. He had a strong mountaineering background along with experience in search and rescue operations. His official role at Scott Base that season was Base Field Assistant and part of that job was being the dog handler for Scott Base. The Scott Base sled dogs were a breed called West Greenland Huskies. They were larger dogs, with males weighing about 120 pounds. Most of them were a mixture of black, white, and light tan, and they had a hackle of fur that sort of stood up on their spine. Peter told me that they chose dogs with straighter coats of fur because the curly hair would get matted down and then freeze to things and when the dog got up…big chunks of fur would get ripped out. The coat had longer guard hairs and a thick undercoat…and these layers provided warmth. I couldn’t believe it when Peter told me that the dogs slept outside, even in the winter.
With strong broad shoulders, these dogs were bred for strength, not necessarily speed. This was important…for the dogs would carry heavy loads on all sorts of expeditions. Peter recalled his first dog trip, which was out to Cape Evans. The sun was still setting at around midnight and it was a really good trip. Well, that is until some of the dogs got into a fight and he got bitten on the hand while trying to break it up. He said that fights were a regular occurrence with the dogs, and that selecting dogs to work together was a tricky ordeal. Often the first mile of a trip was insane, and the handler needed to ride the sled. After that the handler would often ski to the side of the sled.
During the summer season, the huskies were fed scraps of food from Scott Base and McMurdo. One time there was 20 tons of reject meat and they used it to feed the dogs. When winter came, they shot seals to feed the dogs. They would gut the seals, and let them freeze. Then they’d come out with chain saws and slice the meat into huge chunks.
Teams of nine dogs pulled sleds weighing 1,100-1,200 pounds. All of the dogs were attached to a guideline and fanned out like the photo above. There was a lead dog out in front which was not the strongest of the group, but one that could listen and follow voice commands. The other dogs were in pairs across from one another. The dogs behind the leader were also good listeners and sharp dogs. The rest of them were strong dogs, with the very strongest toward the back of the group…closest to the sled. Scott Base had 17 or more dogs…enough for 2 teams.
Each month the dogs were checked thoroughly. They were weighed, had their nails trimmed, and the hair on their pads was trimmed to prevent it from freezing and causing problems for the dogs. Dogs were monitored very carefully for breeding purposes and litters of pups were born and raised at Scott Base. Peter shared the photos in this journal entry with me, but by far, my favorite is this one of some young pups meeting people at Scott Base for the first time. Up until this moment, they were taken care of only by the handler. Peter says they were timid for about a half hour, and then were running all over the place getting into trouble! Aren’t they adorable?
When they fought, the West Greenland huskies would go for the dog on the bottom. Peter told a hilarious story about one of the dog fights…there was one dog that wasn’t so smart, even though he was a good worker. One time a fight broke out and they could hear this particular dog whining and crying on the bottom of the pile. When they removed all the other dogs, they discovered that the dog had his OWN foot in his mouth. Can you believe it?
It’s important to remember that these weren’t pets, they were working dogs. Peter said that when you patted one on the head, you had to pat them all. There was a pack mentality. He laughed when he told me that the dogs were also training the handlers…not just the handlers training the dogs. The handlers worked on two shifts and left each other “dog notes” each day. They recorded quite a bit about group dynamics…which dogs worked better with each other. He also noted that some dogs worked better for some handlers. It’s all personality.
In 1986 Peter was at the dock when the dogs left Antarctica were unloaded off a ship in Christchurch, New Zealand. Those dogs were immediately put on a plane bound for the United States. One of the dog food companies paid for the transport and the dogs’ new home was with Will Steger. Steger would later use some of these dogs on an expedition crossing Antarctica in 1990. Read all about this expedition and others at: http://www.willsteger.com/ .
When I asked him about station life back in the 1970’s Peter commented that he had been at Rothera (a British station) for two and a half years straight. There were two mail runs per year, and they were allowed 200 words per month on the teletype. When phones were introduced, it was so expensive that no one could really afford it. It was five NZ Pounds per minute! Communication is quite different now, with email, video conferencing, fax, and phone calls…all in an instant.
Ross (WISSARD) also has experience with sled dogs from when he first came to Antarctic in the 1973-1974 season. Their team was working at a place called the Crary Rise a little north of where WISSARD will be at the Lake Whillans camp. Ross was part of the Ross Ice Shelf Project, which drilled the very first hole in the ice sheet.
Ross told me that the dog teams flew with the scientists on a LC-130 Hercules military plane that dropped them off in the deep field. The dogs were used to get around in the deep field, but not to get to the deep field. He reported that they did a great job, but were often temperamental. When the scientists stopped for a break, one person had to stand on the guideline to keep the dogs in place. Ross laughed that one time, when it was his turn to take this duty, the dog he stood next to decided to “relieve” itself on Ross’ leg. His pants smelled like dog urine until they left the field. I guess it all wasn’t fun and games!
It was obvious that Peter and Ross have good memories of this earlier era of scientific research and using sled dogs as part of that routine. I would especially like to thank Peter for the great photos and a wonderful conversation we had a few year ago. I not only learned a lot, but was totally entertained by his stories of a bygone era.
(All photos by Peter Cleary)